Johnny Cash is one of the most important, influential and respected artists in the history of recorded music. From his monumental live prison albums, to his extraordinary series of commentaries on the American spirit and the human condition, to a mesmerizing canon of gospel recordings, to his remarkable and unprecedented late-life artistic triumphs of will and wisdom, his impact on our culture is profound and continuing.
John R. Cash was born into a family of Arkansas sharecroppers in the middle of the Great Depression, and that hardscrabble life instilled in him a reverence for family, the earth, God and truth that informed his incredible life and vision over a half-century career. After a stint in the United States Air Force, where he distinguished himself as a radio intercept operator, and less-successful efforts as an automobile factory worker and door-to-door home goods salesman, Johnny broke onto the music scene in 1955 on Memphis’ fabled Sun Records. It was here, at the “birthplace of rock and roll,” where the world was introduced to his singular voice and compelling songwriting, through such eternal classics as “I Walk the Line,” “Big River” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
As Johnny matured as an artist, he took his disciples on soaring adventures of the mind and soul, including Ride This Train, a travelogue of the sights and sounds of his beloved country; Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Cash canon of working man blues; Bitter Tears, a searing examination of the treatment of Native Americans; The Holy Land, Hymns from the Heart and other deeply personal statements of faith and devotion; and, of course, the historic concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, where he demonstrated that compassion and healing are more integral to humanity than retribution and disdain.
In 1969, The Johnny Cash Show was a groundbreaking fusion of musical styles, fresh voices and enduring legends that elevated him to the pinnacle of his craft, taking him to stages such as the White House, Carnegie Hall, behind the Iron Curtain and even Northern Ireland, where the combatants in the Troubles temporarily ceased the hostilities to gather together in a Belfast church to hear him sing—albeit from opposite sides of the aisle. When he became the biggest selling recording artist on earth, it was an affirmation of his universality.
While most artists follow Neil Young’s adage, and either burn out or fade away, Johnny did neither. In his later years, new audiences flocked to hear his consideration of what it means to be human. His powerful statements on love, forgiveness and life and death spoke across time and generations, and still do today. At the end of his life, Johnny Cash had become not only the champion and the conscience of the American Experience, but a portal through which mortals glimpse immortality, an exemplar of overcoming adversity through honesty, and a role model in the everlasting pursuit of Redemption and the promise of the unclouded day.
In his songs, Cash crafted a persona as a dignified, resilient voice for the common man — but there was always a dark edge
One of the most haunting couplets in popular music comes from "Folsom Prison Blues," which went to No. 4 on the country charts in 1956: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
Forty-seven years later, Cash's arresting video for "Hurt" was nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards, winning one.
His deeply lined face fit well with his voice, which was limited in range but used to great effect to sing about prisoners, heartaches and tales of everyday life.
Cash said in his self-titled 1997 autobiography that he tried to speak for "voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments."
His career spanned generations, with each finding something of value in his simple records, many of which used his trademark rockabilly rhythm.
Cash was a peer of Elvis Presley when he began recording in Memphis in the 1950s, and he scored hits like "Cry! Cry! Cry!" during that era. He had a longtime friendship and recorded with Dylan, who has cited Cash as a major influence.
Cash won 11 Grammy Awards — most recently in 2003, when "Give My Love To Rose" earned him honors as best male country vocal performance — and numerous Country Music Association awards. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
June Carter Cash, who partnered with him in hits such as "Jackson," and daughter Rosanne Cash also were successful singers.
The late 1960s and '70s were Cash's peak commercial years, and he was host of his own ABC variety show from 1969-71. In later years, he was part of the Highwayman supergroup with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
In the 1990s, Cash found a new artistic life recording with rock-rap producer Rick Rubin on the label American Recordings. He was back on the charts in 2002 with the album "American IV: The Man Comes Around."
He also wrote books, including two autobiographies, and acted in films and television shows.
In his 1971 hit "Man in Black," Cash said his black clothing symbolized the world's downtrodden people. Cash had been "The Man in Black" since he joined the Grand Ole Opry at age 25.
"Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots," he said in 1986. "I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I've worn black clothes ever since."
Because of Cash's frequent performances in prisons and his rowdy lifestyle early in his career, many people wrongly thought he had served prison time. He never did, though he battled addiction to pills on and off and received a suspended jail sentence in 1965 on a misdemeanor narcotics charge in Texas.
He blamed fame for his vulnerability to drug addiction.
"When I was a kid, I always knew I'd sing on the radio someday. I never thought about fame until it started happening to me," he said in 1988. "Then it was hard to handle. That's why I turned to pills."
He credited June Carter Cash, whom he married in 1968, with helping him stay off drugs, though he had several relapses over the years and was treated at the Betty Ford Center in California in 1984. Together, June Carter and Cash had one child, John Carter Cash. He is a musician and producer.
In March 1998, after Cash's 1998 Grammy for best country album for "Unchained," he made headlines when his California-based record company took out an ad in the music trade magazine Billboard. The ad showed a much younger Cash Cash flipping his middle finger, sarcastically illustrating his thanks to country radio stations and "the country music establishment in Nashville," which he felt had unfairly cast him aside.
Singer Rosanne Cash is Johnny Cash's daughter from his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto. Their other three children were Kathleen, Cindy and Tara. They divorced in 1966.
Cash lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. He also had a home in Jamaica.